The story is more or less straightforward: Peter asks Jesus how many times somebody should forgive another person — seven times? Seven was thought to be the perfect number in Hebrew numerology. Peter’s question suggested that people are really righteous enough to stand in judgment of other people, that we can somehow withhold forgiveness.
Jesus’ answer — that we should forgive seventy-seven times — far surpasses the perfect number of seven and suggests that our forgiveness should be infinite.
The parable that Jesus tells suggests a dynamic that is really far beyond the simple concept of forgiveness. Jesus tells the story of a king who forgives his servant a very great amount, and the servant then will not forgive his fellow servant a much smaller debt; so the king punishes the selfish servant severely. The point is pretty clear: We should be forgiving with other people, because we know how much we ourselves have messed up and have needed forgiveness in our own lives.
That’s a good lesson in itself, but Jesus’ tale has much deeper implications.
The king, the supreme holder of power and authority, listens to his servant and has compassion for him. That concept of compassion is important, because it is the turning point of the whole story. The king puts himself in the place of his servant and understands his desperation, his circumstances; and from that place of compassion, he forgives him his debt completely.
In our own lives, it often occurs that we are too much like the ungrateful servant; we do not consider the circumstances of those who somehow offend us. We often don’t try to really understand why people do the things that they do; it is so much easier to evaluate others actions based on our own needs. A life of true compassion leads us to be much more than simply forgiving of other people; it makes us wise, generous and loving.
Compassion is a very special sharing in the divine life. The Latin root of compassion is “to suffer with.” According to the Houghton Mifflin Dictionary, compassion is “deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the desire to relieve it.” Jesus Christ, in his life, death and resurrection, is the manifestation of the compassion of God. God, who is totally beyond our capacity of understanding, loves us so much that he chose to enter into our reality in a singular and dramatic way in order to give us light in our darkness. This is the greatest manifestation of compassion possible, the ultimate entering into the intimate suffering of humanity.
Compassion invites us to enter deeply into the inner lives of others — in a sense, to see them as God sees them. When we seek to see the face of Christ in others, compassion is the lens through which we must look. For example, as we consider the lives of those who have directly suffered from Hurricane Katrina, the most devastating natural disaster in our nation’s history, we can only begin to imagine what it must feel like to have every material and social fabric of our lives completely torn asunder. As we imagine what it would be like for our own city to be devastated likewise, for our own lives to be so torn asunder, we begin to enter into a state of compassion. Within this state of compassion, we begin to touch into the very heart of who we are, because we begin to see the tracings of the face of Christ in those others; we begin to realize that their pain and their suffering are ours, too, as their hopes and joys are ours, too.
But compassion is not just for those grand events that shake our world; rather, it calls us to consider those in our own community: the struggling immigrant, the homeless, the mentally ill, the sad and the lonely. Compassion reaches out to our friends, our family members, our companions in the work place, and it touches into our own struggles and sufferings. When we bring our compassion into prayer — that is, when we make a conscious effort to examine the experience of others with love and understanding and bring that before God in prayer — somehow our heart touches deeply into the divine and our vision can be transformed and clarified.
Jesus contrasts the heart of compassion of the king with that of his ungrateful servant, who, within his rights, attacks and punishes his fellow servant for a much smaller debt. The ungrateful servant lives his life according to his own selfish wants and desires; compassion does not enter into his equation at all. The ungrateful servant’s punishment is in his very inability to feel compassion for his fellow servant; he misses the beauty of understanding, wisdom and love; he, quite unconsciously, builds a wall between himself and God. The king wouldn’t really have to do anything to this ungrateful servant to punish him, because his dry and unexamined life is pure selfishness, bitterness and anger, a torture in itself.
Jesus, just as he challenged Peter to be a man of compassion, invites us to consider the quality of compassion in our own lives. It is a challenge, because it requires a deep inner knowledge and it asks us to fearlessly face ourselves in respect to our own failings and shortcoming; but the reward is great, because it connects us uniquely to the divine.
Let us praise God for his compassion, his generosity, his wisdom and his great love. Let us offer him our lives, our struggles, our pains and our sufferings, our hopes, our joys and our loves. God accepts our humble offerings and returns them to us sanctified. God strengthen us to be his compassion and understanding, his wisdom and love for our broken world.
n The Rev. Rex Hays is pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church. Sermon Notes is a column by local religious leaders.